New York Times Book Review
New York Times Book Review
- Bloomsbury USA
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- 1st U.S. Edition
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- 5.80(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.00(d)
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The Mae West Dinner Party
My ex still lives in the house we bought together before we were married, a small yellow bungalow where he has lost the war against junk mail, a war I'd spent fighting every day of our marriage. Long ago I read a magazine article about getting organized, and took the organizational expert's advice to heart: Allow mail to flow through your hands only once. It either goes in the wastebasket, or you deal with it now. During my reign as my ex's wife, junk mail never made it as far as the kitchen table. Now, when I drop our daughter off there, or pick her up, I can't help but notice that the junk mail has taken over every flat surface: the dining room table; the console of the vintage stereo; the small table our daughter used to draw at when she was a toddler. I'm suddenly bowled over with a weird sorrow inappropriate to the occasion. It's only free downloads from AOL, still in their plastic envelopes, catalogs, and credit card solicitations, nothing poignant to remind me of our six-year marriage. Yet as I watch him bend down to write a check for his share of our daughter's school tuition, I stare longingly at the top of his head. He has a Jackson Browne head of semisweet chocolate-brown hair, now graying, straight and shiny, which our daughter has had the luck to inherit. For a minute I wish I could take it all back; my part in the divorce, and his part too. This wave of regret and nostalgia for his great hair is followed by a wave of resentment. I'm divorced too, and my house isn't buried in paper. And while we're at it, why am I the onewhocollects his portion of the tuition, then writes the check for the full amount to the school? Why isn't joint custody synonymous with joint bookkeeping? Then that feeling is followed by plain guilt. For being petty, and for being divorced from a decent human being.
By all rights I should now move into how and why my marriage to my ex failed. That would be the logical narrative progression. I would tell you how difficult my ex was, how living with him became impossible. I would reveal all without compunction because he is after all, my ex. I was wounded. He was wounded. All is fair in falling out of love and the subsequent cold war. I might try for an insouciant tone, work the subtext and innuendo, but his faults would all be there. I would present my case for leaving him statistically, women tend to be the leavers (75 per cent of all marriages are ended by the wife) while men prefer to make a marriage so unbearable that a woman has no choice but to leave; in any case, a man almost never leaves a marriage unless he's got someone to leave it for. I would demonstrate with the skill of a prosecuting attorney why the divorce was inevitable. I would do this because to simply say `Things just didn't work out' sounds too much like a statement issued by the White House.
I won't do this, however. It violates one of the few ironclad rules we Generation-Exers feel obliged to try and uphold (it should be noted that we often fail): Never criticize your child's other parent in front of your child. I could make the self-serving argument that this narrative was written for adults and has nothing in common with, say, standing in the middle of the street and shrieking at your ex that he's a heartless son of a bitch, while your child sits on the front porch waiting to be taken to soccer practice, but I don't buy it. Eight-year-old Katherine already reads the newspaper, and spends an unnerving amount of time snooping around my desk. Saying anything about her beloved Daddio would get back to her, somehow, and hurt her in a way I can't imagine, and the fact it was an act of self-expression won't matter to her. Katherine's also decided she wants to be a judge when she grows up, and being her mother, I'm sure she would practice her sentences on me.
The essayist and undertaker Thomas Lynch found this out the hard way. In Bodies in Motion and at Rest he writes about the time his daughter heard him read his gloriously nasty and brilliant poem `For the Ex-Wife on the Occasion of Her Birthday.' A sneering seventy-line litany of things he claimed not to wish for her (loose stools or blood in her urine, among them), it was a huge crowd pleaser.
Once, with my darling daughter in earshot, I was coaxed into reading it to a group of writers in a summer workshop in northern Michigan. It had earned a certain celebrity by now. To my everlasting shame, I never thought how much hearing it would hurt her. And by the time I saw the pain and confusion on her face, I was too far into it to turn around. Or I was having too good a time being the center of attention. Later, I tried to tell her that the poem was really not about her mother, but about my anger, and that as a poet, I had artistic rights and license in the matter, that I was entitled to my feelings and their free expression. To her credit she did not believe me.
Like a cheap insurance policy, however, my vow of discretion regarding my own failed marriage does not cover other people's. I'm not that well-behaved. Most exes love to dish about each other, and don't mind if you repeat what they have to say. A lot of exes are happy to have someone else spread the bad word about the one who done them wrong. `It's more therapeutic than therapy,' says a hospice care nurse I know who's been divorced twice. `A therapist is obligated to hear you out, but will never give you the satisfaction of nodding her head and saying, "That slime dog!"'
I learned the degree to which ex-wives love to talk, and talk to anyone, at a divorced-women-only dinner party co-hosted by my roommate and best friend, Kiki. I also realized then that Kiki and I weren't the only women we knew with peculiar households, but part of a whole slew of exes bumbling around, trying to figure things out.
Kiki and I were roommates at film school in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. She is my oldest friend, and my onetime role model for what I thought a personal life should be: rife with intrigue, a French farce minus the farce, one man coming in the front door while the other is scooting out the back. She called her boyfriends 'lovers', and us, `women' (rescuing me from a lifetime of calling us `gals,' the word my sorority sisters had used).
The Kate and Allie House was Kiki's name for the house we shared, the same house she had lived in when she'd been married to Mort. She named it after the 1980s TV show with Jane Curtin and Susan St. James, who were divorced moms with kids. When we were bored Kiki and I liked to revive an old-married-couple-style argument about who was Susan St. James (pretty, sexy) and who was Jane Curtin (funny best friend of pretty, sexy Susan St. James).
The Kate and Allie house looks like a kid's drawing, with two rectangular window eyes on the second floor, a steep roof brow, and a porch that sags in the middle like a smiling mouth. Two huge oaks were planted in the tiny front yard by someone who failed to read the fine print; the trees dwarf the house and in the fall their orange leaves collect in three-foot-high drifts.
The first half of the week Kiki and I had our kids, Phillip, then eight, and Katherine, who'd turned three the month I moved in. They slept in bunk beds in a small room we painted a demented aqua. Sunday through Wednesday we were moms, fretting over the differences between a PG and PG-13 video, trying to figure out ways to liven up the macaroni and cheese, and yelling at Philly and Katherine to `Stop bickering or we'll pull off your arms and beat you with the bloody stumps.'
We cracked ourselves up. If we'd stomped around and said stuff like this when we were still married, we would have thought we were turning into our mothers. Now, since we were living in the Kate and Allie House, our parenting styles were showy and boisterous, ironic.
When Kiki cooked, Philly and Katherine would eat in front of the TV on the glass coffee table. On the nights when I cooked, I made us all eat at the dining room table, which Kiki thought was ridiculously middle class, but I insisted. My theory is that most of what we call `civilization' are table manners, and that our most meaningful contribution to society and culture is teaching our children that it's inappropriate to wipe their mouths with their collars.
During the second half of the week, it was our old roommate lifestyle. We bought red wine by the case and in the evening sat at the same wooden kitchen table we'd had in our apartment in L.A. nearly twenty years earlier. The kitchen was small, high-ceilinged, covered with thick, inexpert coats of eggnog-colored paint. Kiki still had the same black-and-white portable TV that had sat on the table years before, a TV on which we had watched thousands of installments of the Today show, and the news about John Lennon's murder. On the wall was the same plug-in wall clock that for unknown reasons, sometimes ran backwards, perfectly.
`Have you noticed that men are much better fathers after they're divorced? One more reason why divorce is truly so much better for women than for men,' said Kiki one night, waiting for her cheese soufflé to cook. She stood with her freckled arm reaching out through the back door, a Marlboro between her fingers. (The Kate and Allie House had a serious no-smoking policy.) Kiki is lanky, with pale skin, chin-length reddish-blond hair. In a past life she could have been a flapper.
`Your ex has to become a man, instead of enjoying his former role in the marriage as a tax-paying adolescent. Mort now has to be responsible for Philly when he's there. When we were married, Mort would agree to watch Philly. Translated, that meant he would watch a basketball game on TV and allow Philly to be in the same room with him. If Philly got hungry, or started emptying the bookcases and eating pages of a book, which is something he did, Mort would yell for me to come get him. Some child care, huh?'
On another night she proclaimed, `The only way to have a good ex relationship is not to take any money. Ever. I get no alimony and no child support, and Mort and I get along just fine. Except when he does something so stupid I want to kill him, like putting an ad in the paper for Valentine's Day. Did you see this ad? It says, "Kiki! Drop everything and have dinner with your men!" Meaning him and Phillip. Normally you'd think, "Ah, that's sweet." But it's so, so inveigling. It's manipulative. And then I have to disappoint Philly, because of course he's in on the joke. Divorce isn't the end of the bullshit, it's just the end of the marriage. All it means is that you stop fighting in the kitchen and start fighting over the phone. Most of the time, you haven't been sleeping together anyway.'
Kiki dubbed the divorced-women-only dinner the Mae West Dinner Party. She's worked for a long time in marketing and public relations, and finds comfort in high concepts, and in naming things that don't normally have names.
The Mae West Dinner Party was for divorced women who, like Mae West, felt that `Marriage is an institution and I'm not ready for an institution!' I thought it would be curmudgeonly to point out that as divorced women and some of the guests had two marriages behind them we had all at one time been enthusiastic supporters of the institution, and if the statistics were right, 80 per cent of us would move into the institution again.
Married women have secrets. A better use of the veil at the wedding ceremony would be to have it lowered after the exchange of vows, so when the bride walks back down the aisle, she's covered up and no one can see the expression on her face. Now that she is on the arm of the groom, she will become more inscrutable to the outside world.
Next to the lengths to which she has gone to make herself look great in a swimsuit, the biggest secret a woman has is the nature of her marriage. These aren't necessarily dastardly secrets. Sometimes they're silly. Sometimes it's what she puts up with, the flaws of her mate that the rest of the world doesn't know, her husband's dumb tics, his eccentricities. Sometimes they're big secrets that, if revealed, might color the way the world views the wife; sometimes they're secrets of no real consequence that would merely embarrass her husband. But while one is married to the husband, while one is still in love with him, one doesn't want the world to know that he obsesses about his nose hair, or is deathly afraid of the water bugs that show up once in a while in the kitchen.
An ex-wife, on the other hand, has no obligation to keep the secrets of the marriage. Just the fact of the divorce is letting out a big secret: The marriage didn't work. She is free to tell all. And she will.
Forget all those self-help books, seminars, and industrial-strength wedding vows people are taking these days in Louisiana. If you don't want your husband to leave, tell him you'll tell everyone you know everything you know about him. And tell him you know more about him than he thinks you do. That'll make him think twice.
The party was held at a tiny lavender shake-shingled bungalow in a part of town with used-mattress stores, food co-ops with the original psychedelic signs, and a Starbucks tucked in to show that while funky, the neighborhood was still desirable. Esther, the hostess, is fifty and has been married and divorced twice. She's a dancer (modern, not exotic) and has such flair that she can hang a T-shirt on the wall and call it art. Esther smokes and doesn't care. She still wears Levi's 501s, size 30-32. I don't think I know anyone older than twenty-two whose waist number is smaller than their length number.
If there is such a creature, she is sure to be an ex. At the time of the Mae West Dinner Party, I was as thin as I'd been at twelve. Which, for the record, did not make me happier, but made me feel as if I was perched on a ledge somewhere, waiting for the fire rescue squad to show up. I was thin because I was tense. As was everyone else at the party.
Bruce Springsteen was on the CD player, moaning about being on fire, just as he was in the mid-1980s, when all of us were involved with the `perfect' guys who turned out to be imperfect. We drank Spanish red wine and gobbled young Brie cheese, not the collapsed, odoriferous type that signals French cheese, but the Costco version that looks like something Katherine played with in her toy kitchen.
The only woman I knew there was my roommate Kiki; the others were graphic artists, managers of nonprofit organizations, florists, a framer (pictures, not houses), an attorney, the tiny blue-jeaned dancer, Esther. We were between thirty and fifty, had attractive red rinses in our hair, enjoyed pedicures and facials now and then, had seen the capitals of Europe during the low season, flossed. We knew our astrological signs and more about our signs' personalities than we'd ever admit. Most of us had an IRA, or something like one. We wore different medium-priced perfumes, the kind advertised in upscale women's magazines. Despite our divorces we were, I'll use the word, `together'.
A woman in a white T-shirt and black blazer reached across my lap to get to the plastic Brie and asked, `Your husband dump you for someone else?' Leo raises funds for a nonprofit organization, which requires her to wear a suit each day and have a high tolerance for ornery rich people, so her abruptness surprised me.
`No,' I said. Feeling party-pooperish for failing to elaborate.
`I left Bernie too. We hadn't had sex for seven years. Can you believe it? Do I look like someone who has not had sex for seven years? He always had some excuse, like they say women always do. One day I went to do the laundry and all the hand towels were missing. I thought I was losing my mind. I knew socks could get eaten by the washing machine, but weren't hand towels too big? So where were they?'
I waited. She waited. I thought this was a rhetorical question.
`In the dish towel drawer by mistake?' I said finally.
`At the back of his closet, stiff with cum.' She steered a cracker heaped with cheese into her mouth. This was a woman whose lipstick never rubbed off, a well-spoken woman who also volunteered for one of those get-the-vote-out organizations, phoning people right before an election to make sure they were registered. She was upstanding.
But ... `stiff with cum'? The phrase was like an invisible automotive airbag that inflated and filled up the entire room. I thought, Eeeow, too much information. Does anyone ever use the word `square' anymore? Because that's what I am, square.
From across the living room a woman named Betsy yelled, `Leo, I've always wondered about that. What'd you do?'
`I got the car and the finches,' said Leo, flipping her hair over her shoulder.
`No, with the towels. Did you put them in the laundry hamper? Did you leave them there?'
`She should have seen if she could have somehow used them for artificial insemination,' said someone named Suze, whose husband had come out of the closet, but still wanted to live with her while he dated men.
`I wanted kids,' Leo explained to me. `My ex claimed to want kids, but then he never wanted to have sex. Well, sex with me, anyway. Clearly he didn't mind having sex with himself. Whenever I'd tell him I was ovulating I even invested in one of those special thermometers he suddenly wouldn't feel like it. His excuse right before bedtime was that he had to check his e-mail. Then he'd stay on the computer until I fell asleep. One day I figured out his password and checked all of this famous e-mail. It was all "How to Erase Bad Credit" junk mail. Not even any triple-X stuff. Nothing.'
Betsy, a district attorney who raises Corgis, said it could be worse. There was a guy in her office who had been so sure his wife (now ex-wife) was having an affair, he'd pulled strings at the crime lab to have a pair of her underpants tested for the presence of foreign semen.
`The test came out negative, which enraged him so much he confronted her anyway.'
`What happened?' I asked.
`What do you think? She was livid. They broke up. They got back together. But she just couldn't get the underpants-testing business out of her head. It's so ... medical, or something. It's like that gynecologist whose wife filed for divorce, and he found out there was someone else, and then during her hysterectomy he sewed her vagina shut.'
`What are you talking about? That's hardly the same thing,' said a woman whose name I didn't know. She had a long face, with straight glossy black hair, a thin bony nose, and upon closer inspection, no eyelashes. She reminded me of someone famous whose face I couldn't put a name to. Then I remembered: Rafiki, the baboon from The Lion King.
`She was cheating on him and she let him do her hysterectomy!' said Leo. `She deserved what she got. When I left Bernie I wouldn't have a glass of wine with him until the papers were signed. Hell, I'd never have a glass of wine with him.'
`What, were you afraid he'd get you drunk and then not want to have sex with you again?' said Rafiki. This was a dumb joke, but Rafiki laughed at it anyway. She had had a few drinks before the dinner party began. Later, I would learn that Rafiki was having a hard time adjusting. All those nights alone with the remote and a good book weren't quite what they were cracked up to be, especially when this could be a preview of the next thirty years.
I said, `Wait a minute, can we back up a minute here? What happened then?'
`She filed criminal charges and that's the last I heard,' said Betsy.
This wasn't what I'd meant. Let's say she recovered from the hysterectomy, life got back to normal, then one day she was tussling on the sofa with her new beloved and ... I really couldn't imagine this at all. I was suddenly reminded of the trouble I always had getting the straw into the too-tiny hole on the top of those juice boxes. Was it like that? And then, when she realized what had happened ... how would you realize what had happened? You'd bend over and look up yourself, or use a mirror and then you'd go, `oh, wow, someone sewed my vagina shut.' This was simply too unbelievable. It ranked right up there with the story I heard about the man in France who was so angry at his ex-wife that he killed her with a wedge of Parmesan cheese. I had to think about that one awhile too. I didn't mentally rejoin the party until we all were sitting perched on the edge of our chairs with plates full of vegetarian lasagna and fancy-blend bag salad tossed with balsamic vinaigrette dressing teetering on our laps.
Kiki sat on the floor at the Salvation Army coffee table glass top, scarred legs, a bargain at twenty dollars eating the cheese from the top of her lasagna with her fingers and bemoaning a current problem with Mort.
`What am I supposed to do,' Kiki said. A statement, not a question, because there is nothing to do. With exes, there almost never is. Mort, a CPA and poet, has written and self-published a book of poetry about Kiki called My Ex-Wife Looks Like Ginger Rogers.
`He can't just do that, can he? Expose me that way? I don't even look like Ginger Rogers. She was fat.'
There was a lot of hilarious ranting about the foibles of the ex-husbands at the Mae West Dinner Party. Their mean streaks and fits of sonic snoring, their universal impulse to colonize the bathroom and stink it up. What made them cry (modern women all suppose they want men to feel free to cry, then we're mildly disgusted when they do). Their general lack of interest in the marriage until it caved. Their universal inability to pay their child support on time (not true, as it turns out, but so what). All these men we'd lost sleep and weight over, we'd sobbed over. Villains all.
One of the things ex-wives routinely complain about is how their ex-husbands never talk. Legions of ex-wives report that when still married to their ex-husbands, they `warned them' that the marriage was disintegrating, that they were unhappy, that it was no longer working, that they felt alone in the marriage, that they'd slept with the pool guy (just kidding; that one usually does get the conversational ball rolling), that perhaps together they should seek counseling, and their then-husbands could barely look away from the ball game or the computer screen.
The best chance I had at finding a man to represent the more measured and, I hoped, more profound male point of view was to interrogate Spud, who I've known since tenth grade. After two marriages, which had produced one child each, he'd landed in Oakland, California, where he wrote screenplays and an entertainment column for a dot-com content site.
Together we'd been the copy editors for the yearbook senior year. We'd had such a good time paying no attention to what we were supposed to be doing that we let slip an outstanding typo: over the spread that pictured our staff slaving away to produce a memorable, award-winning tome ran this headline in thirty-six-point type: LET'S HERE IT FOR THE YEARBOOK STAFF. This gaffe, coupled with the fact that we both became writers, united us in irony forever.
Spud is the ultimate on-line guy, a devotee of e-mail long before the movie You've Got Mail and even, I think, before AOL came up with the cute postbox icon and the disembodied `You've got mail' voice.
He asked me to e-mail him my questions, so I did:
1) What were the circumstances surrounding your divorce?
2) How would you describe your relationship with your ex?
3) On a scale of one to ten, with ten being full disclosure, how honest do you feel you can be with your ex.
4) Have you ever used your intimate knowledge of your ex against her?
5) How does your ex exert control?
6) Did it take longer for you to decide to get married or divorced?
7) Divorce ends marital conflict: True or False?
8) Are you the `good guy' or the `bad guy' in your ex-marriage?
9) What revenge fantasies have you had against your ex?
10) Has your ex ever been abusive? If so, how?
11) Describe yourself as an ex.
12) Are you remarried? Does your spouse have an ex-husband?
This was Spud's response:
<<Have you ever watched your dog take a dump in the backyard? What's the first thing he does after he straightens up? Runs a couple feet away from the pile, then kind of struts around like it wasn't him. He wants to get away from that stinky mess ASAP, and guys feel the same way about a marriage that didn't work out. Doesn't matter who did what. Doesn't matter if he left or she left or he cheated or she cheated. Does. Not. Matter. I hope you didn't spend a lot of time thinking up these stupid questions because no guys will ever answer them. Ever. And don't think it's just something guys don't talk to women about, but sit around drinking beer and talking to each other about. Guys may talk about old girlfriends or wives or what have you as a topic but Jesus, never specific. And the topic only gets discussed in very general terms, VERY GENERAL TERMS, if they're all in a row somewhere at a bar or a ball game and then it's `Women alimony Jesus what are you gonna do pass the Beer Nuts.' And this isn't because they're emotionally fucked-up, like women think, but because, hey, if I answer all these questions about Eleanor and Char [Spud's exes] it makes me look pretty stupid, having married the bitches in the first place. Ex-wives are always bitches, I hate to tell you. Even if, like with Eleanor and me, I cheated on her. I cheated on her and she got upset, which makes her the bitch. If my official position was that she's not a bitch, then why did I divorce her? Again, I look stupid. Looking stupid and looking like a failure are two things guys avoid at all costs, and I gotta tell you, it's more important than the feelings of the ex, even if she's in the right. Like both of mine were, technically. But I will answer one question. Number 7 is False. And change your interviewing approach, Karbs. Jesus.>>
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